Gaon Chhodab Nahin And Nirnay: Of Agency, Progress, Tribal Rights And Women, Film Companion

Gaon Chhodab Nahin, loosely translated to ‘We will Not Leave Our Village’, is a 2009 music-video-style documentary directed by K.P. Sasi. It is the narrative of rural displacement on the pretext of developmental projects. Nirnay (Hindi for ‘decision’) is a 2012 documentary film directed by debutant filmmaker Pushpa Rawat and co-directed by Anupama Srinivasan. It is often described as Rawat’s cinematic attempt to make sense of her life and the lives of women around her. Naturally, the film explores gender as a phenomenon in conservative familial settings, through the institutions of marriage and child rearing. On the surface, these two films seem to be non-intersecting. However, as one probes deeper, one finds that these films are convergent in not one but multiple ways – the underlying question of agency, the notion of ‘false’ progress and the tone of discomfort.

The central issue that the two films seem to bring out is the question of agency – who makes life-altering decisions in the lives of the tribals of Jharkhand? Whose decisions dictate the lives of the women documented by Rawat? That entire tribes are dispossessed of their ancestral lands at the whims of certain government officials and lobbyists is terrifying – these native people virtually have no say in their own lives. The song, at one point, claims that the village has now become a ‘colony’ of these business executives and their sidekicks in the government – they have no rights in this autocratic regime of bureaucracy.

Decisions about careers, marriage and childbirth in the lives of several Indian women still have very little, if any, room for their own voice. The stories of Geeta, Lata, Mithilesh and Pushpa herself speak for this scarcity of power – the only wish that Lata has for her future husband is that he will give her a chance to live her own life. Several generations of women echo in Mithilesh’s sentiments when she says that her life after marriage has always been about someone else and never about her. Nine years later, this sentiment echoes again in the beautiful The Great Indian Kitchen.

Both of the films challenge notions of progress often cited as a part of the outlook of modern India. The official rationale behind tribal displacement is often cited to be ‘national development’, ‘economic progress’ or another similar two-worded piece of jargon. However, these developmental projects are carried out at the expense of rural displacement and the destruction of livelihoods of several (already marginalised) people. Nirnay brings out another form of ‘false progress’. Although still a privilege, education is increasingly becoming a normal part of an Indian girl’s life. However, for the majority, rather than becoming an instrument for independence, education is more of a qualifying criterion for a suitable match. A match that they have no say over. The subsequent feelings of utter helplessness in the lives of the subjects translates into the underlying tones of discomfort and disruption that both the films harbour.

However, neither of the films lets this helplessness souse their entire narrative. Critically analysing the established source of authority is a central element in both the pieces. Gaon Chhodab Nahin, not afraid to take names, boldly calls out lobbyists and huge corporations responsible for unjust rural displacement. It points fingers at the hypocrisy of the government and the businesslike attitude of its officials. Rawat asks numerous difficult questions in a very direct manner to people who called the shots and did not let her marriage with Sunil go through – her parents and Sunil’s parents. She blatantly asks Sunil’s father why he chose approval by society over the happiness of his own child, a child who has always prioritised the family’s happiness over his own dreams. In a similar conversation, Rawat asks Geeta if she feels that older people and the society suppress young women like themselves. Rawat had managed to peel the layers of patriarchal control so well up to that point that Geeta couldn’t not assertively agree.

Biju Toppo, who partially handles the camerawork for Gaon Chhodab Nahin, belongs to a native tribe himself. Rawat knows very intimately all the people that she has documented. Nirnay is the telling of her own personal life. Thus, in both the films, the camera is handled by people who are not only well-versed with the subjects and settings of the film but also belong to world that they present. The camera is an insider in both the films. Rawat is the camera in Nirnay. Even though there are multiple direct references made to the camera in the film, it seems like the camera should be recording everything it records. The camera acquires a state of ‘natural being’ through Rawat. This is why the women in the film feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and break down while the camera is facing at them.

Gaon Chhodab Nahin, although full of irony and satire, never takes on a solemn tone. Perhaps, the most memorable shots of the documentary are those of the drunk man playing with the camera. As pointed out earlier, Nirnay traces the lives of its subjects with a level of intimacy that had never been reached before. It is a political documentary but it is also deeply personal to all those who were captured by Rawat’s camera. Consequently, each of the two films breaks the barriers of the language of the documentary film. The ways in which this happens are vastly different. While Gaon Chhodab Nahin uses the banter of the subjects with the camera, Nirnay looks the subjects in the eye and makes them talk about their lives in a very personal manner.

As a result, the tonalities of the two films are starkly different from each other. Gaon Chhodab Nahin deals with its theme in a very satirical tone. The shot of an explosion while the lyrics are about construction of a sanctuary and beseeching the God of Development for solutions is a good example of the rich satirical and ironical reserve of the film. On the contrary, the mood of Rawat’s film for the most part is heavy – like that of the sky preparing for a heavy downpour. The former is a very dynamic five minute-long video. The latter, on the other hand, proceeds at a languid pace, but the relaxed speed never becomes overbearing.

Gaon Chhodab Nahin has wide shots aplenty. These are mostly shots of fields, rivers and mountains. However, there are also close-up shots of wilderness, grass, streams and dancing people. The humour that the shots of Warli art, animations poking fun at politicians and dancing Bisleri bottles manage to create travels right across to the viewer. In addition, this humour leaves an aftertaste of satire and gravity.

The most essential shots of Nirnay are close-ups of people being questioned by Rawat. This proximity of the camera with these people becomes crucial in establishing the characteristic intimate nature of the film. One cannot help but be moved during the shot where Geeta breaks down while talking about her baby and her domestic plight. The film also has many intelligent shots. The shot where the shadow of a house’s window is made to look like the shadow of a jail’s bars by rotating the camera ninety degrees is immensely impactful in terms of its symbolism. There is a shot where Rawat is on a Ferris wheel with a friend and while they are riding upwards, the lyrics of a song in the background read ‘Take me up’. The skill of the filmmaker and the editor of Nirnay are evident in shots like these.

The quality of editing of Gaon Chhodab Nahin is seen in how seamlessly the gunshots from the animation lead to actual footage of guns being fired in a particular transition. No transition in the entirety of the film seems to be abrupt. The sound design is centred around the beats of the song. The composition, especially the beats, sound very celebratory. This creates the sarcasm that the film virtually operates on and brings out the celebratory aspect of the tribal movement.

The sound design of Nirnay has been very cleverly created. The ambient noises have been cut down where the filmmaker wants the audience to focus on the person who is talking. However, the ticking noise of a clock is very evident in the scene where Sunil’s mother is in front of the camera. To keep this very insinuating sound was a very smart choice.

One feels pumped up and charged to support the tribal movement against rural displacement after watching Gaon Chhodab Nahin. This is because the film is indeed a clarion call to the affected rural population to rise in unity and rightfully claim what is theirs. On the contrary, Nirnay does not intend to mobilise or preach. It intends to narrate and lay bare the reality of the intersection of the institutions of gender, patriarchy and caste. It captures you for an hour and then suddenly leaves you with a calm lull.

The titles of both the films are very apt. Gaon Chhodab Nahin is set in the tribal areas of Orrisa and Jharkhand, and Nirnay traces lives of lower-middle class women in Uttarakhand. While the contexts of the two films are different, both raise similar questions about agency and the ideas of progress. Though the durations of the films vary hugely, both manage to create an impact in their own way. The repeat value of each of the films is immense, both for its technical merit and the narrative that it upholds.

Gaon Chhodab Nahin And Nirnay: Of Agency, Progress, Tribal Rights And Women, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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